It is HARD to quit diet culture.
I know that I can sit over here in my desk chair and type pretty words about how lovely it is to not stress about dieting or exercise, and reassure you that you are beautiful because you exist. Maybe that sounds wonderful and you feel good reading that, but then you try to go about your life with that in mind, and it just doesn’t work. You feel scared and worried and like quitting diets is harder than dieting. Why is it so hard to leave diet culture behind?
- We’ve been lied to. Yep, I said it. That whole thing about how you’ll die if you don’t lose weight? Not true. All that “research” that shows a correlation between higher weight and various health issues? Correlation does NOT equal causation, plus, the studies are set up looking for that correlation in the first place. Higher weight absolutely does not mean that you are not or cannot be healthy. The whole premise of Health At Every Size is that we can pursue and achieve health without even talking about weight. Even knowing this, it is ingrained into us to believe that bodies of certain sizes carry a death sentence that can be avoided, and we want to do everything we can to avoid that if this is the thought pattern to which we subscribe.
- Social approval. How many times have you been the recipient of or witness to compliments about losing weight, choosing certain foods, or someone exercising frequently? Maybe you’ve noticed that these are always tied to some positive moral, such as, “You’re so [good/dedicated/amazing/organized/other].” On the flip side, have you noticed that people often undermine their own choices that don’t align with what is considered correct? Think about hearing people make statements like, “I’m going to be bad and order dessert,” “I’m going to have pasta but I shouldn’t,” or, “I need to work out so I can burn off the calories from the latte I drank.” It is extremely clear that dieting behaviors are acceptable and non-dieting behaviors are not. Forgoing that social approval is a struggle, and understandably so: none of us learned diet culture in a vacuum, and none of us will leave diet culture in a vacuum. It will always be around us until society changes, and it is important to understand that this is a real, genuine barrier that we need to be cognizant of in order to overcome.
- Community. This goes hand-in-hand with that social approval piece – if we all subscribe to diet culture, we all have something to talk to each other about. Turn around in line at Subway and tell the person behind you that you like real mayo instead of light when you’re worried they overheard your order and might be judging you, and they’ll most likely chuckle and join in with the diet talk. We literally don’t even have to know people to be able to engage in diet culture perpetuation with them, because diet culture is SO pervasive. If you leave diet culture, you leave this community, too.
- Control. Dieting feels a heck of a lot like direct power over our own lives and everything that happens. We commonly believe that people who diet and exercise frequently have their lives “together,” somehow more so than the rest of us. We think that those folks who plan meals and bring the little boxes with organized, home-prepped meals must have their kids, significant others, work, home life, housework, and other activities all so organized and running so smoothly that it affords them the time and energy to plan meals and exercise every day. And maybe they do. I’m sure there are a few of those folks who do. But for the rest of them, and most of the rest of us, life is messy. Things happen that we don’t plan for. Something went wrong and we didn’t have time to get to the gym or prep all those meals we found on Pinterest. Maybe nothing went wrong, and spending all afternoon reading a book just felt good. Maybe a family member had a health issue and you’re determined to not take the same path. Maybe someone who did everything “right” died of a heart attack anyway. There are all kinds of reasons we turn to our food and exercise for control, but ultimately, it doesn’t give us the actual, direct power over our lives that we believe it does.
- Diet culture is aspirational. What I mean by this is, the obsessive eating and exercise aspects of diet culture give us a feeling that we’re working toward something. We set weight goals, and we believe that once we meet those, the world will open up for us and we will have so many doors open. What if diet culture actually works opposite of that? What if those doors are already open, regardless of your body size, and all you need to do is walk through them? What if the thing that is stopping you from your aspirations is actually fear of doing them, and you just think you have to be in a smaller body before you can do those things? Diet culture keeps us small. We live tiny, enclosed lives when so much of our energy is spent controlling our food and exercise. Imagine everything we could do if we left diet culture behind and went for that job, wrote that book, took that trip, volunteered for that organization, set out on our dreams, weight be damned? Diet culture feels like we’re working toward something big, but it’s all just a sham to keep us from living up to our full potential and have real, lasting impact in our lives and on the world.
Maybe you’ve tried to leave diet culture before. Maybe you’re just starting to walk out of the fog of diet culture. It’s okay if you’re struggling; getting out of diet culture is a major challenge. You’re here, reading this – and you can do this.